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A&E >  Food

Spicing up winter: Cardamom serves up legendary flavors

Sylvia Fountaine

In winter, when temperatures drop to bone-chilling degrees, warmth can often be found in the kitchen. During the cold months, I find myself gravitating toward the warming the spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, white pepper and cardamom, which generally get pushed to back of the cupboard during the summer months. 

But it is cardamom that holds my heart, keeping it warm on the coldest of days, not only for its flavor, but through the memories it brings. It is one of the first spices I remember tasting as a child.

Growing up with a Finnish mother and an Egyptian father, the holidays were filled with recipes from their homelands. Each Christmas, my mother would make a Finnish bread called pulla, a subtly sweet, soft and buttery braided loaf speckled with freshly ground cardamom seeds and topped with coarse sugar. Sometimes, she would add raisins and sliced almonds. When it came out of the oven, the whole house smelled happy. 

On Christmas morning, my father would crush a few cardamon pods and add them to my parents’ brewing coffee, a wistful nod to his past. Cardamom, like the broken English they both spoke, became their common ground in the kitchen. 

Native to the rain forests of Southern India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, cardamom grows wild. It was first introduced to Finland and its Scandinavian neighbors more than 1,000 years ago, when Vikings sampled the spice during raids on Constantinople. Enduring supply lines were established, and Scandinavians have developed a strong affinity for cardamom ever since, using it often to season their baked goods, mulled wine, pickled herring, even meatballs. Today, Scandinavia is the second largest consumer of these fragrant pods, second only to India.

Cardamom is an ancient spice with a rich, far-reaching history. It’s first mentioned in ancient Indian Ayurvedic texts, written approximately 1400 to 1600 B.C. Then, the intensely flavored and aromatic seeds were believed to have healing qualities – lifting spirits, reducing pain, restoring vitality and inducing a calm, meditative state of mind. 

It’s said Cleopatra found the aroma so enticing that she had her palace scented with cardamom smoke when Mark Antony came to visit. Ancient Egyptians chewed cardamon pods as a way to clean their teeth, and Greeks and Romans used cardamom medicinally as well as in perfumes. In India and the Middle East, cardamom is a staple, used to flavor meats, vegetables, curries, baked goods and teas. An essential ingredient in Arabic coffee, cardamom coffee is considered a symbol of Arab hospitality.

The combination of cardamom and coffee is a tantalizing marriage of flavors, complimenting each other so generously. This recipe for Cardamom Latte Panna Cotta, a custard-like dessert, sans eggs, comes together easily and quickly. Served in little canning jars, or a mini ramekins, a few of these luscious bites are the perfect ending to your holiday dinner.

David Blaine, chef and owner of Central Food in Spokane’s Kendall Yards, buys whole green cardamom pods and uses them in both savory and sweet dishes.

“It’s in our house-made curry spice and was recently featured in our pumpkin ice cream,” he said. “In cooking, spices are like colors. Just like the way colors come and go in fashion and graphic design, exploring new spices or using them in new ways is critical to keeping people’s palates interested.”

Here, Blaine shares his recipe for Roast Chicken and Pasta with Cardamom-infused Winter Squash Puree, a hearty, comforting dish with just enough of the aromatic spice to make it interesting.  

“Cardamom, outside of Indian cooking and in savory uses, helps change a familiar dish in a subtle way that makes it new again,” Blaine said. 

A harmonizing spice, cardamom is often paired with cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, allspice, anise, pepper, ginger or cloves. Its flavor is still distinguishable yet blends in. Think chai. Cardamom’s woodsy notes and citrusy undertones are similar to ginger with hints of pine, menthol and anise.

It always amazes me how something so small can pack so much intense flavor. It’s no wonder cardamom tastes a little of ginger, for it is a member of the Zingiberaceae family, like ginger and turmeric. The rhizomes produce tall canes that produce tropical white and pale green flowers containing pod capsules with 10 to 20 seeds. It’s also difficult to grow, and the pods must be hand-picked. which is why it is the third most expensive spice in the world, next to vanilla and saffron.

Today, cardamom is predominantly cultivated in Guatemala and India. There are three varieties of cardamom, black, green and white. White cardamom is simply bleached green cardamom. Bleaching softens the dominance of the menthol note, giving the pod a sweet and pleasant flavor.

In Scandinavia, green and white cardamom pods are found in most baked goods. Green pods are preferred in Southern Asian cuisine. 

Black cardamom has a distinct flavor. A coarse brown pod containing about 40 seeds, it combines camphor notes with distinct flavors of earth and smoke, with peppery overtones. It’s one of the essential ingredients in North Indian curries. 

Seeds lose flavor quickly when ground. It’s best to buy whole pods and crush them just before using. But this can be time consuming and a bit of a chore.

To add a little intrigue to your own recipes at home, using a light hand, substitute a little cardamom when cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg are called for, and enjoy the subtle nuances it brings. Try adding cardamom to French toast or baked fruit desserts like apple cobblers and pear crisps. Sprinkle a little into granola, or even over oatmeal, for something different. Plop a few crushed pods into your next batch of coconut curry sauce, or your French press along with your coffee.

Cardamom pairs especially well with chocolate. Sometimes, in winter, I’ll add a hint of it into dark chocolate torte, topping it with a dollop of cardamom-scented whipped cream. 

A heart-warming tradition in Finland during the coldest of months is to make glöggi. The mulled red wine is steeped with whole cardamom pods, ginger and citrus, and often served during the holidays to celebrate winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

Finnish Cardamom Rolls

For the dough:

1 cup milk or half-and-half, lukewarm

1/2 cup sugar

4 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 eggs

1/2 cup butter, melted, cooled

1 tablespoon cardamom seeds, crushed, or 1 1/4 tablespoons ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 cup butter, softened

For the topping:

1 egg, for egg wash

Turbinado or rock sugar, for sprinkling over the rolls, or regular sugar

In a small bowl combine the milk,  ½ cup sugar and the yeast and stir. Let it sit for about 10 minutes until the yeast dissolves and starts to bubble.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the eggs, melted cooled butter, cardamom, salt and – with the whisk attachment – mix everything together. Add the yeast mixture and continue mixing until well combined.

Change to the dough hook, and add 1 cup of flour at a time and mix until you add all the flour. If the dough is too sticky add a bit more flour, but continue mixing until the dough separates from the bowl and forms a ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise for 1 ½ to 2 hours until it has doubled in size. 

In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cardamom together for the filling.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Add a bit of flour on your work surface. Punch the dough gently, and place it on your work surface. Cut dough into four equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, cover the other rolls so they don’t dry out. Roll each piece about as thin as you can, about 12 inches by 18 inches. Brush some soft butter onto each piece, then sprinkle with cardamom sugar.

Roll each into a tight log, starting from one of the narrow ends. With the seam side down, line up the dough log in front of you and cut it on the diagonal, alternating up and down, so that the slices are fat “V” shapes, with the point of the V about ¾-inch wide and the base about 2 inches wide. Place on the prepared baking sheet and turn so the narrow tip of the V is facing the ceiling. Repeat with remaining dough pieces.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let rolls rise again for about 30 to 40 minutes. Brush the rolls with egg wash, then sprinkle with course sugar. Bake for about 18 to 20 minutes and check to see if they’re cooked through; continue baking for a few more minutes if necessary. Let cool and store in airtight bags to keep them soft. To serve, heat them in the oven for just a few minutes. Serve with butter. 

Note: To make a traditional Finnish braided loaf, visit my Feasting at Home blog and search for “Pulla for Lea.”

Yield: 24 to 28 small rolls

Glöggi (Warm Finnish Mulled Wine)

1 bottle inexpensive red wine

1 cup port, aquavit, brandy or vodka

3 to 4 thin slices of fresh ginger

6 cardamom pods, crushed

2 star anise

1 cinnamon stick

4 whole cloves

1 orange, zest and juice

1 lemon, zest and juice

1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, to taste

In a saucepan, bring all ingredients except sugar just to a boil but do not allow to boil. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. If there’s time, turn off the heat and let the flavors meld for a couple of hours or days before serving. Serve in glass mugs.

Yield: about 4 ½ cups

Note: This recipe can be made 24 to 48 hours before serving, just cover and refrigerate. Before serving, return just to a boil but do not allow to boil. Remove the ginger and cinnamon. If you like (I don’t bother), strain out the spices and citrus zests.

Roast Chicken and Pasta with Cardamom Winter Squash Puree

From David Blaine of Central Food in Spokane

1 small kabocha squash, split in half

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

8 green cardamom pods

1 cup warm heavy cream

1 cup chicken stock

1 tablespoon honey

Pinch of cayenne

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon fresh pepper 

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts

8 to 10 ounces dry or homemade pasta

Roast squash cut side down on a greased baking sheet at 400 degrees until tender, about 40 minutes. Scoop out and cool. You will need 2 cups for the puree. Save the extra to toss with the pasta if you like.

Toast cumin seeds and cardamom in a dry skillet over medium heat until they begin to smoke, shake pan throughout.

Steep cumin and cardamom pods in warm heavy cream for 5 minutes. Add cream mixture to the blender along with stock, honey, cayenne, salt and pepper and blend. Add squash and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust salt. Heat over low heat.

In an oven-proof skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper, and pan sear, skin side down for 4 to 5 minutes, or until golden. Turn chicken over and sear for another 2 minutes.

Place in the 400-degree oven until cooked through, about 15 minutes. Cook pasta according to directions. Assemble the dishes by dividing puree among four bowls, top with cooked pasta and chicken. 

Serves: 4

Cardamom Latte Panna Cotta

2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

5 cardamom pods crushed, or 1/2 teaspoon ground

1 teaspoon instant coffee

1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin

2 tablespoons water

Whipped cream, for garnish, optional

Shaved chocolate, for garnish, optional

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, cardamom and coffee. Over medium heat, bring the mixture just to a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover and let steep for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand until evenly moistened, about 5 minutes. Uncover the cream mixture and bring just to a simmer over moderately high heat. Remove from heat, add the gelatin and stir until dissolved. Strain and pour into a pitcher. Pour the panna cotta mixture into four small 4-ounce ramekins or canning jars and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the panna cotta is set but still jiggly, at least 3 hours. Serve in the jars, with a dollop of whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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